Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland builders: We need functions of government, like any part of UK

After the CEF's evidence to the committee, John Armstrong on impact of having no Executive

As the federation has already said on the public record, and as we again made clear to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, there is a significant and increasingly harmful lack of governance within Northern Ireland.

The Department of Finance's recent budgetary outlook very clearly details the challenges presented because of the huge investment going into the Northern Ireland Executive's flagship projects over the next three years, even though the overall capital budget is going up.

Unquestionably, the Executive's flagship schemes stand on their very clear economic merits. However, and even allowing for the extra budgetary allocations made by the Chancellor in his recent Budget, a balance must be struck in budgetary planning between how much resource is spent on these and other areas, such as roads maintenance and our education estate, so to avoid a massive cliff edge for the vast majority of firms not engaged on the flagship projects.

With Brexit uncertainty affecting institutional investment in Britain, private sector investment in Northern Ireland struggling to maintain its 2015-2017 boost and local contractors beginning to question how easy it will be to access the Republic of Ireland market post-March 2019, it is almost certain that contractors will, over the coming period, become more dependent on the public purse again.

The outlook strongly suggests that, outside of minor and major strategic/flagship projects, there will be little additional new capital available over the coming three years. That is of huge concern to an industry that is still fighting with fundamental concerns as to its own sustainability.

Civil servants have been placed in an intolerable position. When we consider infrastructure, schemes require in many cases years of preparatory work and approvals. With little political direction beyond the Executive's flagship schemes, it is therefore impossible for future infrastructure planning across Government clients to, properly, take place.

Neither the construction industry, nor the Government clients, can afford to be in a position in March, never mind once the financial year has started, of still not having a legislatively approved budget. So that this process can be done as efficiently and effectively as possible, it is vital that the 2018/19 budget be approved by mid-February and, in the context of the ongoing impasse at Stormont, that Westminster must assume this responsibility will fall on them.

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We have long said that the Secretary of State must now bring clarity. Decisions need to be prioritised and taken and a clear and accountable way of government taking these decisions needs to be established.

Our preference is, of course, the establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive. However, failing that, we need to move to a position where the functions of government can be exercised in a way that any other part of these islands would expect as a matter of course.

John Armstrong is managing director of the Construction Employers Federation

Belfast Telegraph